It has been known for some time that women suffer from higher rates of depression and anxiety than men. Recently, many news outlets reported on a study that shows that these higher rates are correlated with the pay gap. While women who had similar income to male counterparts had a similar risk of depression and anxiety, “[w]omen with lower incomes than men with similar levels of education and experience were about 2.5 times more likely to have major depression than men” and “about a four times higher risk of anxiety disorder than men.”
The study noted that the findings “suggest that women may be more likely to place the blame for their lower income on themselves, and not on gender discrimination,” thinking that they were of inferior merit and therefore becoming anxious and depressed.
While this seems surprising at first, and I was initially skeptical, a fascinating recent editorial in the New York Times had me thinking about it again. Called Why Therapists Should Talk Politics, the editorial was by a psychiatrist who wrote about a patient whose burdensome job was making it difficult to spend time with her children, and how this was reflective of the types of cases he now sees:
“As a psychotherapist with a private practice in Manhattan, I see a lot of early- and mid-career professionals coping with relentless email and social media obligations, the erasing of work/life boundaries, starting salaries that remain unchanged since the late 1990s. I see “aging” employees (30 and up) anxiously trying to adjust to a job market in which people have to change jobs repeatedly and cultivate their “personal brand.” No one uses all her vacation days. Everyone works longer hours than he would have a generation ago.”
The psychiatrist’s experience treating patients mirrored the study’s findings that unfair workplaces result in self-blame and mental health burdens.
“When people can’t live up to the increasingly taxing demands of the economy, they often blame themselves and then struggle to live with the guilt. You see this same tendency, of course, in a variety of contexts, from children of divorce who feel responsible for their parents’ separation to the “survivor guilt” of those who live through disasters. In situations that may seem impossible or unacceptable, guilt becomes a shield for the anger you otherwise would feel.”
The author noted that psychiatrists often respond to patients’ issues by focusing on the patient, which may reinforce the patient’s sense that she is to blame for her problems. Talking about the wage gap that women and minorities face is a helpful step to make sure they don’t blame themselves, but one would hope we can make changes to the workplace so that people are not required to resort to therapy.